Research Article: Walrus history around the North Water: Human–animal relations in a long-term perspective

Date Published: March 7, 2018

Publisher: Springer Netherlands

Author(s): Anne Birgitte Gotfredsen, Martin Appelt, Kirsten Hastrup.


This article highlights the relationship between walruses and humans in and around the North Water polynya in a long-term perspective. The present study draws on a combination of biological, archaeological, archaeo-zoological, historical, and ethnographic sources covering the period from the 8th century ad to the late 20th century. The study demonstrates that the walrus was an important resource of meat, blubber, and other products throughout all the studied periods, if always supplemented by other kinds of game. It is suggested that walrus distribution and behaviour, as well as hunting strategies and technologies historically constituted a powerful component not only in forming human action and social life in the region but also in serving as an imaginative resource. It is further argued that the walrus and the walrus hunt still play a significant role in the present community living on the edge of the North Water, even if the hunt is increasingly circumscribed due to changing ice conditions.

Partial Text

In this paper, we explore the role of the Atlantic walrus (Odobenus rosmarus rosmarus) in the region around the North Water polynya (Pikialasorsuaq). The walrus has contributed significantly to the entire socio-ecological system in the region in shaping both the hunting economy and people’s aspirations, and offering up a rich source of meat and blubber—for people as well as dogs—of hides, ivory and imaginations through the ages. (e.g. Vibe 1950; Born 1987; Born et al. 1995, 2017 and references therein). The walrus also has its own history, so to speak—both in a long-term perspective (see Born 2005) and possibly from a shorter term perspective of change in overall distribution and movements (e.g. Stewart et al. 2014), and in its response to climate and hunting practices (e.g. Born 1987; Born et al. 2017). Both these time-scales impinge upon the human–animal relationships that are at the centre of this article.

Walruses are highly gregarious pinnipeds that tend to travel in small groups and haul out on ice or on land to rest, moult and bearing their young (Fay 1982). They inhabit the moving pack ice, or drift ice, and areas with thin-ice where they are capable of breaking through up to 20 cm thick ice and maintaining holes in even thicker ice. Although walruses may feed on a variety of bottom-dwelling invertebrates, only a few bivalves—usually Mya sp., Hiatella sp. and Serripes sp.—make up the bulk of their diet (Vibe 1950; Born 2003).

The archaeological and archaeo-zoological source material from the Greenlandic side of the North Water is substantial, reflecting 80 years of changing excavation practices. During the periods 1935–1937 and 1946–1947 Holtved (1944a, b, 1954) undertook the first systematic large-scale excavations in the area. In spite of excellent preservation conditions in the High Arctic, Holtved did not recover faunal remains (except for tool implements of organic matter). During the last couple of decades, Holtved’s work has been supplemented through excavation campaigns in 1996 and 1997 by the ‘Gateway to Greenland’ project at Hatherton Bay, Inglefield Land, which for the first time encompassed the collection of faunal material from the area, i.e. from four Late Dorset sites (Appelt and Gulløv 1999; Christensen 2000). Through archaeological surveys and excavations since the 1990s the ILAP (Ingefield Land Archaeological Project) project provided substantial new information and artefactual materials from both Late Dorset and Early Thule culture sites (Darwent et al. 2007, 2008; Darwent and Foin 2010; Darwent and Johansen 2010; LeMoine and Darwent 2010; Johansen 2013). Finally, the NOW Project 2014–2017 obtained new data on walrus exploitation from excavations at the classic Nuulliit site from midden layers in front of a qassi (a Men’s house) combined with comprehensive surface registrations of animal bones on sites in the Innaanganeq and the Pittufik area (Grønnow et al. 2015, 2016, 2017; Mønsted 2016). On the Canadian side of the North Water polynya extensive archaeological field-campaigns have been conducted since the 1970s notably in the central parts of eastern Ellesmere Island, covering all periods of the human history in the area. Both the archaeological and archaeo-zoological material from Ellesmere Island is very well-published and constitutes the central frame of reference for all of the North Water (McCullough 1989; Schledermann 1996; Schledermann and McCullough 2003).

The prehistory of the North Water walrus hunting cannot be understood without including a wider geographical perspective. Therefore we include zoo-archaeological material from Foxe Basin, Central Canadian Arctic, where walruses form a stable year-round source (e.g. Born et al. 1995). The earliest specific cultural adaptations of walrus hunting is likely to have taken place among pre-Inuit Dorset groups in the Foxe Basin region (Murray 1996, 1999). The continued importance of the walrus hunting in the Foxe Basin is illustrated by including, for instance, the Ruin Island-phase site of Sanirajak (Desjardins 2013), which in several aspects resembled the abovementioned Nuulliit site. We will furthermore make reference to the post-Ruin Island archaeological record from Hvalros Ø (North East Greenland), as well as the newly analysed archaeological record from the Ruin Island-phase site of Illuminerssuit [Kap Seddon, Eastern Melville Bay (Qimusseriarsuaq)].

In many indigenous societies across the Arctic personhood is attributed to animals (e.g. Nuttall 2000; Hill 2011). In other words animals, especially important game animals such as caribou and marine mammals, can be perceived as other-than-human-persons (Hill 2011, p. 407). The human–animal dynamics in societies that understand animals as persons are based on mutual respect and the concept of reciprocity (e.g. Fienup-Riordan 1994, pp. 58–59; Jordan 2008, pp. 236–239). Important game animals and humans were ‘kinsfolk’ so to say and could in many aspects behave in similar ways (Hill 2011 and references herein). The archaeological remains resulting from the human concept of human–walrus relations could be expressed in various ways. Some were listed by Hill (2011, 412ff) from Alaska and Chukotka; comprising different kinds of amulets, large skull features with numerous walrus skulls in mounds or circles but also bone caches and ‘shrines’. In the following some archaeological and ethnographic examples across cultures will be presented.

Having discussed the prominent position of walrus in prehistoric economy and imagination, we now turn towards more recent times. The first Europeans making it to the Thule region in the 19th century after the receding of the Little Ice Age met a people with limited technologies but with an unquenched thirst for walrus meat (see e.g. Hayes 1867; Peary 1898). The newcomers marvelled at the hunters’ skills at harpooning the huge animals from the ice-edge, and the collective strength needed for dragging them onto the fast-ice or ashore (e.g. Holtved 1967).

Walrus hunting was a crucial and defining activity in social life along the coasts of the North Water region during the last 1500–2000 years. The sociality among humans extended to the animals that were incorporated into human society, both literally in being eaten, and figuratively by organising communal activities and collective imageries. From the 8th century and well into the 20th century, and across different indigenous communities, archaeological and historical records alike attest to a communal organisation of the walrus hunt, and a communal distribution of the catch. Walrus was not only an important source of food for humans—and in later periods for their dog teams—it was also a crucial source of raw materials. The intensity of walrus hunting varied greatly within the region, as testified by the diversity of the studied sites, depending on the proximity of the site to good walrus hunting grounds and on available hunting techogies. At some sites from the early Thule period, the Ruin Island-phase, walrus ranked second to only bowhead whale in terms of providing the inhabitants with meat, blubber, and other resources. Importantly, the walrus was far more predictable than the bowhead whale, and would have been the cornerstone in the economy.




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